Johns Islander Mary May is a wood carver with international clout

Old Soul

“I think, maybe I was born 200 years too late.” Tucked away on a bend of River Road, professional wood carver Mary May’s home and studio is a piece of quiet on an otherwise busy, albeit tree-laced, thoroughfare. Cats loll on top of planks of wood, patches of dirt, an enclosed hot tub. May’s home is reminiscent of a J.R.R. Tolkein trope, nearly hidden by flora and fauna, a space so ethereal one can only imagine the woman behind the curtain. An old soul with nimble hands.

“I’ve been doing this over 25 years,” says May, arms sweeping across the diminutive, well-lit studio. It’s filled with teaching models — a pineapple, a seashell, a rose. On a neighboring work bench there are commissioned pieces, ornate, curving wooden accents to be used on a 1770s era reproduction fireplace. What has become her life’s purpose started, simply, says May, as a hobby.

When visiting Europe more than two decades ago, May was struck by the details of the interior woodwork and exterior stonework of cathedrals and castles. “I came back thinking ‘I really want to do this.'”

A native mid-Westerner, May was living in Minneapolis at the time and decided to act on her newfound desire. “I looked in the yellow pages under wood carving and I ended up meeting Konstantinos Papadakis, a Greek master carver in Minneapolis.” A world renowned carver, Papadakis’ carvings in the Byzantine style are acknowledged as among the finest displayed in Orthodox churches in the U.S. and Canada. May studied with Papadakis for three years before returning to Europe to study at the City & Guilds College in England. “I just wanted to glean as much knowledge from various master carvers that were still there,” says May.

And what she has gleaned has gained the unassuming artist an international following. “We [wood carvers] all like to hide away in the corners … the personality, [we’re] loners, you kind of have to be.”

Living and working on her Johns Island “little piece of heaven” for 17 years, May has still managed to accrue quite an Instagram following. “I was amazed — as of last night I got 24,000 followers on Instagram. I don’t know how that happened.” May also runs an online wood carving school with 3,500 students, more than 300 instructional videos, and memberships ranging from a free six hour beginner lesson series to a $160 premium full year membership which includes access to all lessons.

For her videos, May simply films whatever commision pieces she is currently making. “It’s fun because there are lots of times when surprises come up or ‘Oh that broke, how do you fix that?’ And then it’s ‘OK, redesign opportunity.’ I try not to edit out the mistakes.”

May’s students range from other professionals who want to up their game — oftentimes furniture makers — to total newbies who have never even held a chisel. Within the past month, May had a handful of students visit her studio for a week of instruction. One student, a professional rocking horse maker, traveled halfway around the world to learn from May. “She wants to learn how to embellish, add details and put decorations on the rocking horses. It puts pressure on me, I have someone coming all the way from Australia!”

May’s handiwork can be found all around town, from reproduction work in centuries-old homes to slate gravestones in the cemetery of the French Huguenot Church to the signs at the Dock Street Theatre. It’s not the finished product that elicits the most joy from May, though. For her, it’s all about the process.

“The opportunity to do the Gibbes visiting artist series is exciting. A lot of people don’t get to see the actual carving being done; to see that it is actually being hand carved in the traditional way.” During her 11 day stay at the Gibbes, May will be working at her bench, creating pieces that correspond to the Gibbes’ A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America exhibit.

“There are a lot of wood carvings in the folk exhibit,” says May. “There’s a carved traditional American eagle so I’m linking my work to the exhibit, I’ll be doing an eagle.” The artist will carve away in her Gibbes studio all day, chatting with curious museum goers, and, May hopes, lots of inquiring young minds.

“This generation, from the age 35 and under, has not had a lot of real opportunity for hands-on experience,” says May. “You never know who might look at that and it will spark their interest, like it did for me.”

Our 2012 interview with May:

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